Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Vault Reviews: Saddle To The East by Various Artists

In terms of having access to Reggae music, living in the rather Reggae-remote area in the United States that I did for around a decade or so was probably the worst move that I could have made (although when I left, I was a kid and had NO choice). The state of Michigan was definitely no hotbed of Reggae or Caribbean music in general and really the best part of it, from a logistical point of view, was that it was only around three hours of so from West Indian HEAVY Toronto. That being said, however, my one saving benefit was, of course, the internet which helped me SO MUCH stay in touch with Reggae and specifically Jamaican Reggae. Since that time (the early 2000’s) the internet has certainly become a basically IMMEDIATE source of info (with beautiful places such as the one you are currently viewing), but just a few years ago back then, it served a much different MAIN purpose for me: Tracking down albums. One of the best ways I found to stay in touch was actually buying albums from some of the various online retailers (many of which have since gone, but a couple are still around, namely reggae source), since I didn’t have the ability to just go to a random store and pick up some ANY album as most of the regular stores in that area didn’t stock Reggae so much. Doing this, and the way I did it was to almost buy up anything which attracted me on almost any level, it definitely introduced me to some GREAT talents that I would have otherwise not known just following the local Reggae scene. For example, leaving Jamaica in around 1995 or so, there was an artist by the name of Sizzla who, although he would have been an up and comer at that time, didn’t REALLY make his rise to prominence while I was fully living in the States. Sizzla’s case is a bit different because the FIRST time I actually heard his name I was on an extended stay back in Jamaica but it wasn’t until I got back to the States that I REALLY realized what type of business he was doing on the album side. And while Sizzla’s case is definitely unique, what isn’t so unique is the way I learned of another of my current favourite artists, the DIVINE Queen Omega. I originally heard her name on an internet radio show interview she had done (large up ireggae) and I simply found someone retailing her album and picked it up. Going on a decade later and I’m still a big fan but at the time, I would guess that I was probably the only person in that entire city (and maybe even state) who had owned that album. There were also others who I learned of through picking up albums who I have stuck around with in the years since like Jah Cure (and his subsequent very interesting story), Natty King, Turbulence and a whole heap of others. Having since moved back to the Caribbean, its very interesting that I somewhat nowadays kind of miss the days of buying something almost completely unheard but, that is, of course, because now I hear EVERYTHING.

Two of my current favourites also came to my attentions through my researching and making purchases online and through VERY similar ways, both Lutan Fyah and Jah Mason. In the case of Lutan Fyah, I would hear his name and his music for the first time in 2002 as he was one of the artists showcased on a WONDERFUL and now CLASSIC compilation I checked in that year by the name of Culture Dem from the US based Lustre Kings Productions. That compilation introduced me to a few different artists, but the definitive standout was Lutan Fyah who now easily ranks in my top five favourite artists. Jah Mason would be another who would rank in the top fifteen or so for me and I actually first begin to listen to him through his appearance on quite a few odd and just random compilations and mixtapes here and there but if I recall correctly, my first ‘FORMAL’ introduction to the Mason and his music would have been on a compilation which for me is equally as powerful as Culture Dem (although not as good actually, but definitely not far from it), Saddle To The East from Brickwall in 2001, the year before Culture Dem actually. Brickwall, in an of itself, is quite interesting as, as far as I know, they’re no longer doing business, but when they were they were doing SERIOUS works. The distribution side of it, as far as I know, was actually the brainchild of the LEGENDARY Reggae producer extraordinaire Bobby Digital which would make perfect sense because if you really do the research you’ll find that the actual first distributors of Sizzla’s two MAMMOTH Bobby Digital projects, Good Ways and, of course, Black Woman & Child, were actually Brickwall Records. Not only that, but you’ll also find owned to the label’s credit album releases from Garnet Silk, Jah Mali (the criminally underrated Treasure Box) as well as Determine’s sophomore release Freedom Cry (and if I remember correctly it would have been Digital who helmed the chanter’s first album, Rock The World also, for VP) and an album, Try To Reach The Top, from veteran singer Admiral Tibet. While all of those had more direct involvement from Bobby Digital himself, Saddle To The East was actually worked and produced by Sugar Roy for his Fireball Productions label. That same label helmed quite a few compilations and albums at the time from a variety of distributors (usually Jet Star) and was quite nice and active for awhile (and I believe Sugar Roy still works with it when not pursuing his own artistic goals with partner Conrad Crystal). However, as far as Fireball’s compilations and releases in general go, Saddle To The East was BY FAR the crowing achievement. The album featured three artists taking their turns with kind of segmented style of track listing. Joining the aforementioned Jah Mason (who looks SO young on the cover, don’t?) was Anthony B who was already established at the time and also the downright MYSTERIOUS but well talented Steve Machete. Between the three, what they did here for me was deliver such a nice vibes that has, as a collective, become one of my most prized GEMS of an album in my entire (OBESE) collection. The album not only virtually introduced me to two new artists, it solidified my faith in another and provided just a LOVELY LOVELY vibes in the process.

As I said, the way the album is structured with each artist taking a block of it’s fourteen tracks to themselves. And although, in retrospect, it wasn’t necessarily packed with the BIGGEST of tunes (in terms of popularity), there are hits here and there and just generally very SOLID material throughout, without any bad or even average tunes. The first of the three to take his turn and getting things going on Saddle To The East is Jah Mason. This was just prior to the release of his debut album, Keep Your Joy and was the most concentrated bit of his work on just one record at the time. His first tune is the WICKED woman tune Dem Love [Me] over Sugar Roy’s relick of the African Beat riddim (originally a Studio One remix of an old German diddy apparently) and it definitely shows the more aggressive style of the Mason with more of a focus to the power and less to the actual wording of the tune. Nevertheless, nice start. Up next would be quite the controversial tune I imagine had it gotten more press, Dem Gone. The tune, lyrically speaking, is one aimed at uplifting the Women of the world (and unlike the opener, not at the hands of the Mason himself, but in general) but he does it at the fault of those who maybe don’t necessarily have eyes for the women (who he says is GONE). Thankfully, its not something he actually harps on and he focuses more on the Empress. The results of that is a very GOOD tune and it should be as it is afforded the SWEET and TIMELESS old Techniques riddim, I’m In The Mood For Love. The Mason’s final three selections amount to what is, in my opinion, CLASSIC Jah Mason tunes. The first up is the POUNDING Nah Lef Mi Woman, definitely one of the biggest Dancehall tunes on the album (I don’t know the name of that riddim, but its MAD!). Fire is simply the biggest effort that you’ll find from Mason on Saddle To The East and one of the best on the album altogether. Apparently he agreed also as it is the only holdover from STTE to his eventual debut album, Keep You Joy from the following year. The final Mason track here is another of my forgotten favourites, Life Too Precious over the old (ADDICTIVE) Kuff riddim. This one has the crazy old dusty sounding Dancehall vibes to it and I love it! You will also.

Steve Machete is up next and he would definitely be the artist who I thought would do so much more but didn’t materialize up to his potential in recent years, although thankfully he is still recording so far as I know. My introduction to Machete and his introduction on this album comes in the form of the MASSIVE repatriation anthem, Hurry Home. That tune is BRILLIANCE and is my choice as the single best tune on the entire album! Next up is a tune which doesn’t quite reach those levels (duh) but definitely holds its own, No Comfort Stool. This tune speaks of the overall discomfort that we all face in the world and how important it is to neither become so comfortable with your situation and to remain aware at all times. Ghetto Youth Cry is a very nice selection explaining the trials and tribulations many of our youth face in their everyday lives in the corrupt system and how they often feel as if they have no way out. It is so well CHANTED that you have to recognize it’s strength even before you go at it from a lyrical perspective and when you do go there with it, lyrically, you’ll be even more impressed. Lastly, Steve Machete comes with what is his second best tune on STTE, Ethiopia, over the same I’m In The Mood For Love riddim as the Mason’s Dem Gone. Machete, arguably, does an even better job with his piece for the riddim as Ethiopia is certainly a cool social commentary simply not to be missed. Keep an eye out for Steve Machete as he has seemingly become a favourite for FINE German imprint Pow Pow as of late and appears on a couple of their most recent compositions.

Batting cleanup on Saddle To The East is Trelawny superstar Anthony B. I’ve struggled with thinking of why Fireball would have included Anthony B and not someone else like Michael Fabulous or another of the more unestablished names who they were voicing at the time but I’m sure Anthony B’s mere presence on this album has sold them more than a few copies. His first effort here, Heavy Like Lead, was one of the bigger hits which appear on the album and is a WELL solid tune as is most of his material actually. Next up is without a doubt the biggest hit of any of these tunes, Good Cop [Bad Cop] which also comes across the African Beat riddim and was probably the biggest hit on the rebirth of that riddim as well. It also happens to be one of the strongest tunes altogether on the album just as it was when it attracted the attentions of VP Records who also included the tune on their 2003 release from the artist, Street Knowledge (might’ve even been the best on that one in retrospect) and is his best effort here as well. Anthony B also goes on to have the only combination on Saddle To The East with the tune Universal Joy, which features the aforementioned Determine. This tune is just HIGHLY INTENSE and one which you might not have imagined to hear on an album like this but it definitely shines here and in retrospect I don’t think I’ve heard it on any album since then all these years later. Determine always was a good artist on combinations and Universal Joy was certainly no different. Anthony B’s set as well as the entire album comes to an end with the social commentary Raise A Pay as he too takes the I’m In The Mood For Love out for a spin. This is one of the signature tunes on the album to my ears and definitely one which I’ve spun a great deal over the years and I think it actually did a bit of damage as well. Regardless of its level of popularity, the tune is big and a very fitting way to end matters on Saddle To The East.

Overall, as I said this was a big release for me. My only even somewhat technical critique is the fact that both Anthony B and Jah Mason have five tunes on the album and with fourteen in full, that leaves only four for Steve Machete. This one definitely has ’collector’s item’ written all over it and with Machete appearing on so little actual projects since and in full I would certainly recommend it for those seeking to find more about him. Even if you’re not and you just want more Mason and Anthony B material then pick this one up. . . Really if you’re a fan of modern Roots Reggae and you don’t already know these tunes, you have NO REASON not to track it down. Although Brickwall’s catalogue, for the most part, remains woefully under circulated and surely not digitally at this point (although it seems to be on their website), Saddle To The East has remained well circulated and you might even be able to find it at this point with a bargain bin type of price on most online retailers. This album has remained one of my favourite compilations of all time, I absolutely love the thing and it wasn’t a bad pick up all those years ago. I HAD SKILLS!

Rated 4.5/5 stars
Brickwall Records

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